Head to a dance club after midnight in Tokyo or any big city in Japan and you may well be greeted by a bubblegum voice with bright pop visuals crooning over a hardcore rap track or dystopian drum machine.
These are the badass females whose pop image and candy-coated voice soundtrack the hardest of raves in the grimiest of places.
Take sisters Hikam and Hana Watanabe, collectively known as Tamanaramen. They play sets in the dead of the night, sandwiched between DJs to perk up the party-goers who need a pick-me-up in a cramped club, where re-entry is more often than not a no-go. Appearing at events such as PURE 2000, the DIY rave in a park on an industrial estate in the corner of Kawasaki, Hikam’s vocals and Hana’s visuals light up dark nights. With vibrant hair, colored to complement brightly colored images, it is hard to miss them.
They recently made the decision to appear together. As Tamanaramen, their visual image is as emboldened as their music. They are very conscious of the relationship between the two.
“We’re careful not to let images interfere negatively with the music, whilst wanting to create a relationship at the same time,” says Hana. “We aim to create a connection between music and image… so the visual image can further deepen and enhance the music itself.
“Even though the visual aspect appears bright and carefree, everything is carefully thought out behind the scenes. At the center of our activity as Tamanaramen is the concept of ‘time and memory.’ I attach sounds, colors and shapes to everyday feelings such as fading memories… which makes us value the fluidity of these concepts and images.”
The videos for last year’s “Fake ID” and “The light behind my eyelids” saw a dissociated Hikam in various places around the city in different colored lights. Both songs make for great club numbers, with punchy drum machine beats reminiscent of emo band, Crystal Castles. They are very aware of their niche as an in-demand nightclub live act.
Their new single, “Glowing Arcade” sees bouncing synth beats bob alongside Hikam’s soft vocals. It’s arguably the calmest song Tamanaramen has released of late.
Looking at Tamanaramen’s bubblegum-bright electro-pop visual identity, it’s easy to draw comparisons with another fellow Tokyoite, Aya Gloomy. As the most established of the bunch, Aya has released two full-length albums and performed her synthesizer live sets in support slots for the likes of Mykki Blanco and Yves Tumor.
After forming a close relationship with Big Love record shop in Harajuku, she released her first album, a danceable number titled Riku no Kotou, in 2018. This was followed by the beat-heavy Tokyo Hakai in 2021 which saw her define her hardbeat tendencies. The result sounds like something from the soundtrack of Trainspotting: punchy, frantic beats, with skittering melodies, held up by her sugar-sweet tones.
Gloomy’s background in fashion – working in a clothes shop in Harajuku at the age of 18 and appearing in the iconic Fruits magazine before she was 20 – forms an integral part of her music. Her instantly recognizable, brightly colored hair even made her the feature of a documentary in collaboration with i-D magazine photographer, Francesca Allen. She currently runs her own ’90s and ’00s fashion shop in Harajuku, alongside her music and modeling.
Late in 2021, Aya Gloomy and Tamanaramen performed alongside another female artist and musician named NTsKi for a color clashing event at Wall & Wall in Omotesando.
NTsKi hails from the countryside of Kyoto. Her razor-sharp art direction has seen her appear for Nike and Grounds shoes and has been lapped up by the fashion crowd and Gen Z alike. She also performed at the latest MUTEK festival with visual artist Saeko Ehara. The latter’s brightly colored visuals brought the act right into the future for an especially memorable performance.
With such a strong visual identity it can be easy to forget just how accomplished NTsKi’s music is.
“I don’t mind if people don’t know what NTsKi looks like or if they have never seen the artwork or videos, I would just love it for everybody to be able to experience the music,” she says.
Attending NTsKi’s release party for her debut album Orca, last month, brought home her vocal and songwriting talents. Resplendent in ’00s neon streetwear, she performed medley after medley alongside a stream of well-known collaborators including Le Makeup and Shokuhin Matsuri, a.k.a Foodman.
She hopped from experimental to drum ‘n’ bass to reggae with ease thanks to impressively versatile vocals. The video jockey was none other than Hana from Tamanaramen, who flicked through clips from NTsKi’s past music videos interspersed with found footage and other clips filmed by the singer herself.
For the finale she was joined by another up-and-coming Japanese female artist, Dove, a regular visitor to Tokyo. Dove performed at events including the Avyss Magazine third year anniversary party at Club Asia last year, both solo and alongside long-term collaborator, Le Makeup.
It’s clear that the Japanese underground scene is bubbling with talent. There are many talented artists throwing their full creative juices at whatever comes their way, from music to visuals to fashion. Make sure you check out one of these live act the next time you head to the club.